world council of churches

Introduction to the workshop on
"What Difference does Religious Plurality Make?

Hans Ucko

1. Religious plurality is a reality

In his preface to the revised edition of The Faith of Other Men, Wilfred Cantwell Smith, not only explains why there are no longer 'men' in the new title "Patterns of Faith Around the World", the reason being obvious, but highlights a more subtle issue than the gender issue: the other. The other is and can no longer be described as the other. "We all now live, and know that we live in a pluralist context... They are, says Smith, "instances of 'us'. They are parts of the human community that is 'we'.1 It is a striking way of describing the changes and transition of the world. Most articles or books dealing with religious plurality will often begin by saying how present religious plurality is or has become today in every part of the world. These writings will paint the pictures of temples and gurdwaras in places where before only churches had been the religious presence.

I used to work in Uppsala, Sweden. The most common post-card portrayed the Uppsala Cathedral. Today I receive post-cards from Uppsala, where the photographer has found an angle, where both the cathedral and the newly built minaret of the mosque seem to stretch themselves towards the sky. The silhouette of Uppsala is changed.

The world may be changed to the effect that a mosque is contending with a cathedral as to the skyline, but does it influence us as religious people? How do we make sense of the religious plurality? Venerable Yifa says rightly in her paper that religious plurality is neither good nor bad. It just is what it is. Religious plurality is a reality in the historical and contemporary experience of the human community. While religious plurality can be a source of spiritual and social renewal for human communities in the struggle for justice and peace and a sustainable environment, it can also be a force for destruction. It has created and continues to create problems in relations between peoples. Religion plays a role in exacerbating quite a number of conflicts throughout the world. The other is different from me. He is other. The Christian church cannot run away from its responsibility in what its pervasive arrogance has led to in world history. It is, as Kofi Opoku says, a sign of arrogance to believe "that the arms of Christianity alone could embrace the baobab-tree of divine truth". It has taken a long time for Christianity to realise this and I am not so sure that it is really realised.

Religious plurality is for many Christians in the West a new phenomenon. Christine Lienemann recalls that during her "childhood and adolescence little weight was given to" deal with religious plurality. More is now expected from us and it has today to go, as she says, "beyond tolerance". Quoting Merleau-Ponty, she says: "It is about learning how to perceive what is ours as if it were foreign to us and to perceive what is foreign to us as if it were ours".

Religious plurality is not only a Christian problem. It seems to be a problem within each religion in relation to "diversity within its own ranks (and) more especially if it has to take place in the context of interreligious dialogue" as Rashied Omar puts it. Everyone thinks of him/herself as the pet of God. Anant Rambachan points to this fact as something disturbing also in the Hindu tradition, that there would be a hierarchical outlook of higher truths and a "lower truth or standpoint". "Other traditions and viewpoints are accepted, but only within the general framework that they grow towards and will arrive at one's own position... Lower truths are partial and incomplete." Elliot Dorff tells us about the embittering conflicts within the Jewish community. To be related to the Divine or the Absolute is exalting but seems also to lead to its very antonym. The most powerful expressions of praise, of love of the divine, of discipleship seem also to contain the seed of contempt of the other. "There is a sense in which any scripture, of whatever religion, is confessional, and to that extent exhibits an in-built intolerance of other ways of being and believing. At best, all scriptures tend to interpret others and their beliefs from within a world-view that is peculiarly their own".2

Where are we in relation to each other? Are we we and do you remain the other? Expressions such as the one attributed to the Hasidic Rabbi of Kotzk announce themselves: "If I am I, because I am I, and you are you because you are you, then I am I and you are you. But if I am I because you are you, and you are you, because I am I, then I am not I and you are not you." Can I be I independently of you? Martin Buber seems to contradict the Rabbi of Kotzk, adding another dimension to the question of the other, saying that I am accomplished in relation to you, that there is a real symmetry between the I and the Thou, where you and I are mutually responsible for each other. And Emmanuel LÚvinas adds yet another point of view: The other is as an other not only an alter ego: he or she is that which I cannot be. And as such, he or she is indispensable for my own being.

Other interpretations of the other could be added in our attempts to make such sense of religious plurality, that it, as Rashied Omar puts it, "relates to the quality of religious co-existence between the diverse religions within a specific context", incorporating "pluralism into our very notion of a religious tradition (intrinsic pluralism)".

2. Time has come for us to put our heads together

The many religiously fuelled conflicts in the world, the migration of peoples between countries and continents, the proliferation of new religious movements, the rise of various forms of fundamentalism point to a crucial need for positive inter-religious relations. There are many examples of good and positive interreligious relations, but they are in comparison with other aspects in the one world of ours, such as the technological and economic aspects, lacking behind. It is as Kelly Jensen writes: "As we become a planet more interdependent and as our technology moves us even faster in that direction, the links between humanity cannot remain only non-personal." We need to cultivate these links between us as persons of different faiths and traditions. We call it dialogue and it is a particular kind of communication which stretches and hopefully reaches beyond tolerance to appreciation.

We come together as people of different faiths and traditions at least for two reasons. I think it was Kenneth Cragg who once said that a Christian should, when reading the Bible, always imagine the Muslim neighbour attentive to what the Christian is reading and how it is understood. It has equally been said that a Christian preacher should always imagine a Jew present in church listening to the sermon. Focusing on Christian theology, I think it is fair to say that our theology has mostly been formulated in isolation from the other or over against the other. The question is if these theological constructs can remain the only notions in our being, which are never to be challenged. Wesley Ariarajah writes in his contribution: "The problem here for me was that plurality made no difference to the church. It lives in a make-belief world of its own - that it is the group that has all the answers to the questions of life; that it has only one primary mandate, namely, to preach the Gospel, and that one day "every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord." Religious plurality knocks today at the doors of the study, where theological claims are formulated and written. What we see with our eyes and feel in our hearts in our encounter with people of other faiths tell us something important. We engage with people of other faiths and are more than once overwhelmed by our encounters. Kenneth Cracknell tells us about his life as a missionary with the Igbo people in Nigeria, when he had to ask himself: "Why then did African people know so much about God before even the white missionaries came? Why had these great and good people so much to teach me about life in community with nature, with the ancestors, and with one's fellows?" Our experience tells us that God is as much with them as God is with me. There is truth and wisdom in their teachings, and love and holiness in their living, like any wisdom, insight, knowledge, love and holiness that may be found among Christians. Sung-Hee Lee-Linke articulates our discovery: "The religious life of this world could in no way be explained by the dogmatics of one religion."

Time has come for us to put our heads together. There is among many a sense of a new possibility, for Christians may be similar to the discovery, which once prompted the ecumenical movement. Some Christians today, through their encounters in our religiously plural world with people of different faiths, are discovering that the ecumenical movement must reach "beyond the Christocentric movement and into an ecumenism of plurality" as Kelly Jensen phrases it.

Wilfred Cantwell Smith compares the demands on theologians today with the demands that for long time have been put on scientists and philosophers. "The time will soon be with us when theologians who attempt to work out their position unaware that they do so as members of a world community in which other theologians, equally intelligent, equally devout, equally moral, are Hindus, Buddhists and Muslims, and others; unaware that their readers are likely perhaps to be Buddhists, or to have Muslim husbands, or Hindu colleagues - such theologians will be as out of date as is one who attempts to construct an intellectual position unaware that Aristotle and Kant have thought about the world, or unaware that the earth is a minor planet in a galaxy that is vast only by terrestrial standards".3 This workshop organised by a Christian organisation, the WCC, and where the majority of the participants are Christians of various confessions, is in a way an attempt to address relevant issues, not in splendid isolation but in a company of some Hindu, Buddhist, Jewish and Muslim friends.

There are certain givens in our world today that cannot be eclipsed in our thinking. As people of faith the religiously plural world is from this time on and irrevocably a constituting part that requires our attention in a new way. Rashied Omar puts it in this way: "We need to incorporate pluralism into our very notion of a religious tradition." This quotation is taken from the experience of interreligious work in post-apartheid South Africa but it could as well be a universal experience. Rashied Omar would like the inter-religious movement to transcend the "extrinsic motivations on which interfaith solidarity is sought. It appears always to be external factors, for example, the need to fight crime or lead the moral reconstruction program of our country or do damage control after provocative attacks on members of another faith community by one or other radical faction, which provide the impetus for interfaith co-operation. In order for the inter-religious movement to become self-propelling and mature, we need to find intrinsic reasons from within our own faith commitments for promoting good relations with people of other religions."

The second reason seems to contradict what I have just quoted, but a closer look will, I hope show that this is not the case. We need to put our heads together because we know that there is an increasing complexity of religious diversity in the world which highlights also the destructive nature of religions and which shapes the contexts. Wesley Ariarajah used to say that interreligious dialogue is not an ambulance but a tool in prophylactic health education, a toothbrush to avoid dental caries. We need to begin to find space for pluralism in our own tradition and we need to see that the ecumenical principle of Lund, Sweden, becomes an interreligious principle: that which we can do together we should not do separately. There is a need for a deeper understanding of religion as a dynamic of human experiences of transcendence. We often tend do go it alone. I remember Ali Ashgar Engineer, a leading Indian Muslim scholar and activist, who as a guest to an ecumenical gathering in Seoul on Justice, Peace and the Integrity of Creation, asked me whether Christians really believed that there was a particular Christian peace, Christian justice and Christian concern for the integrity of creation. That which we can do together we need not do separately. A consultation organised by our office in 1993 formulated issues that needed our particular attention. I will quote from it and you will see that it is a natural interreligious agenda:

We need new understandings of the diversity of religion-culture relationships, especially as experienced by religious communities in two-thirds of the world;

We need an analysis of the religion-politics matrix within a commitment to the poor and the liberation of the oppressed. We need common action to open up relations with others, specifically in order to answer the call for social justice;

We need a dialogue with secular disciplines of thought and socio-anthropological analysis in examination of human religious experience;

We need ethics of non-violent protest against destructive uses of religions and participation in a contemporary search for a shared ethical foundation for religious co-operation, especially around issues of human rights, social justice, peace and ecological concerns.

At the recent WCC Assembly, held in Harare, one of the features was the so-called Padare, a Shona word for market place. Here various groups, organisations and individuals were given the possibility to offer their ideas, issues, and concerns to the wider public of the Assembly. There were women's groups, peace organisations, Bible societies, and groups dealing with questions of sexual orientation. Hundreds of seminars, discussions, exhibits, plays, workshops opened up an array of issues and concerns. Among them, our Office on Interreligious Relations offered eight sessions on dialogue and interreligious relations. Our intention was originally to have bilateral dialogues: Christians and Jews on the Bible, Christians and Muslims on civil law and sharia etc. As the invited Hindu, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Sikh and African traditionalist guests met to prepare for the Assembly, the consensus grew among us that we present our concerns in an interreligious way. And so we ended up presenting from an interreligious perspective issues, concerns and subjects such as 'The Ultimate in a world of religious plurality'; 'Globalisation and the future of religions'; 'My God, your God, our God or no God? How the encounter with people of other faiths can be spiritually transformative'; 'Human Rights and Minorities'; 'Religion fuelling conflict or fostering peace'.

3. We think that in dealing with the questions of religious plurality it is good to do so from a multi-disciplinary way, not only to get the theological aspects right, if this is possible, but to see religious plurality as it is, an expression of our life, our life together.

I think it is fair to say that those of us, who from a Christian perspective have been working in interfaith relations and dialogue sometimes took for granted that our Muslim, Jewish, Hindu or Buddhist counterparts also were our counterparts as theologians. One Christian theologian met a Hindu theologian. Our counterparts were kind enough to enter our turf and tried as much as they could to oblige our theological needs. We learned in dialogue as we went on, that there is more to life than theology. We articulated this in the WCC following the Assembly in Canberra by emphasising interreligious relations, calling ourselves the Office on Interreligious Relations. This office addresses the questions of people of many different faiths, living and working together, sharing a common life and the struggle for justice, peace, human rights and other issues that concern society as a whole. Traci West tells us that her most meaningful encounters with issues of religious diversity have in fact been intertwined with racial and gender tensions. Her story made me think of Ernst Simon's dilemma, with which I think many of us can identify: "The people I can pray with, I can't talk to, and the people I can talk to, I can't pray with".

This workshop is a tentative response to how we could operate. The value of the theological reflection cannot be underestimated and must continue, but another dimension is added, the interreligious theological reflection. Because we are many who have the same experience as Anant Rambachan, when he says: "It is only ignorance of other traditions or the refusal to be challenged by their claims which enables one to explain away religious pluralism by the na´ve conclusion that one's own tradition is true to the nature of God and that all others are false. Such an answer is too simplistic for those of us who have cultivated meaningful relationships with people of other faiths."

The very concept theology has been widened and deepened much through the contribution of women, the poor, the marginalised and oppressed. Yoti Sahi opens doors to engagement of the senses with theology: "Theology, which is concerned with rational, discursive ideas, contained or articulated by words, always tries to set limits on concepts, tailoring them to fit within set, or proscribed limits, like the proverbial "straight jacket". In contrast to this kind of theology, I would like to present a visual theology, which I would term Theography. Such a discipline would be more concerned with the flow of ideas, their interconnectedness, rather than their limitation within rational boundaries. Part of the reason why religious systems of thought have tended to suspect the power of the image, is precisely its lack of rational definition. What does an image mean? It is impossible to put it down in words. To articulate it in a verbal way, is simply to narrate its possible meanings, to unveil its many layers, by telling stories, which help us to explore its different dimensions. Images, Paul Ricoeur once said, are not the product of conscious thought. Rather they give rise to thought." Stephen Warner expresses the width and depth of religion in the following way: "In .. aesthetically powerful experiences, I have seen other people-- people I knew, some I loved-- appear to be lifted out of themselves, to be joined with something greater than themselves, to speak in the language of moral conviction, communal awareness, and personal centeredness. I am convinced I have seen the experience of true religion in people religiously different from me." Plurality is more than religious. Krzysztof Skuza illustrates how the Hebrew language itself transported him into a world of deepened faith and how a Jewish-Christian worship opened new dimensions.

This workshop would like to be inter-disciplinary, a meeting-place in cross-reference, where participants are invited to expand on how religious plurality affects them in their work and thinking, coming at it from various perspectives.

These different perspectives should facilitate our exchange on the significance of religious plurality. We should not be romantic and na´ve about religious plurality. Religious plurality becomes problematic, when the religious manifold is turned into a facile and simplistic unity. This happens in many interreligious gatherings: 'We are all the same. Beyond everything all is harmony and bliss'. The meaning is well intended but is it true? Christine Lienemann emphasises that religious plurality should not be viewed from a perspective above all religions and sees how the acceptance of religious plurality could in fact spark off counter-reactions in confessionalism and religious fundamentalism as a bulwark against perceived relativism. It is obvious that we have different experiences. Where Stephen Warner sees religious plurality in the US strengthening religious institutions, Christine Lienemann sees (maybe from a European perspective) religious plurality affecting people in less positive ways: religious indifference and a lack of religious orientation.

4. Historically the challenges of religious plurality have been an issue within the WCC, obliging the WCC to rethink theology. One such example is the statement from Baar (1990).

The former Dialogue sub-unit brought to the Seventh Assembly in Canberra the document "Religious Plurality, Theological Perspectives and Affirmations" from Baar, Switzerland, where in January 1990 some thirty theologians, Orthodox, Catholic, Protestant, met to interpret the theological significance of religious plurality. The consultation was called to give some theological considerations to the urgency of dialogue. There was a need to express respect and, where possible, affirmation of the religious experience of the other. Recognising that God can and does act in saving ways other than the one we know, offered an interpretation of the Christian claim, rooted in Scripture and tradition, that Jesus is unique and the Christian conviction that Jesus and his life has universal significance.

The document "Religious Plurality, Theological Perspectives and Affirmations" of Baar dealt with religious plurality and christological thinking from a pneumatological perspective, thereby emphasising the Assembly Theme: "Come Holy Spirit, Renew the Whole Creation!" Although the Assembly in Canberra for various reasons (the Gulf War being one major reason, demanding rather an emphasis on interreligious relations than on a theology of religions) did not after all enter into the heart of the matter of religious plurality, it did underline the necessity that the question ought to remain an object of study and reflection of the WCC. With the restructuring of the WCC in 1992, interreligious dialogue was bifurcated, aiming at a strengthening of interreligious relations as such and on the other hand, attempting a missiological reflection on the theological significance of other faiths. An inter-unit co-operation would then be able to bring into inter-action actual experiences of interreligious relations and a thrust of present missiological thinking on religious plurality. For various reasons this did not happen. Kenneth Cracknell has written about this document elsewher, that it virtually disappeared from the face of the earth, at least the ecumenical earth. I have unearthed it and would like to share some excerpts of the document with you.

We see the plurality of religious traditions as both the result of the manifold ways in which God has related to peoples and nations as well as a manifestation of the richness and diversity of humankind. We affirm that God has been with them in their seeking and finding, that where there is truth and wisdom in their teachings, and love and holiness in their living, this like any wisdom, insight, knowledge, love and holiness that is found among us is the gift of the Holy Spirit. (II para. 4).

We are clear, therefore, that a positive answer must be given to the question raised in the Guidelines on Dialogue (1979 ) "is it right and helpful to understand the work of God outside the Church in terms of the Holy Spirit" (para. 23). We affirm unequivocally that God the Holy Spirit has been at work in the life and traditions of peoples of living faiths.

Further we affirm that it is within the realm of the Holy Spirit that we may be able to interpret the truth and goodness of other religions and distinguish "the things that differ" so that our "love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment" (Phil. 1: 9-10).

We also affirm that the Holy Spirit, the Interpreter of Christ and of our own Scriptures (Jn. 14:26) will lead us to understand afresh the deposit of the faith already given to us, and into fresh and unexpected discovery of new wisdom and insight, as we learn more from our neighbours of other faiths. (IV. paras. 2.3 and 4).

5. In preparation for this workshop we have found three areas reflecting the contributions and would like to engage in an initial exploration, thrashing out some of the aspects of religious plurality.

Religious plurality is a reality. What are the resources in our own faith to meet religious plurality? Are we in our religious traditions coping with religious plurality? What are the problems that we face?

Our religions are facing two different forces demanding a response. One is secularisation, which is perceived mostly as a threat or a strain on religion. The other is globalisation, which sometimes seems to embrace or encircle us against our own wish. What difference do secularisation and globalisation make to our own self-understanding?

Are there resources in our religious traditions to go beyond theological doctrine, helping us to build community in the midst of plurality? And if there are theological differences, are there ways we can advance? Are there ways we have not explored in full so far: aesthetic, art, liturgy, ethic, a common struggle for justice? Could we find new entry-points here?

6. Can we say something together on religious plurality?

We have come together as individuals. We are not sent out to represent anyone. We are not a balanced gathering of so and so many from the South, from the North, men, women, youth, confessions or religious traditions. We are persons, who have a stake in interreligious relations and dialogue. We can neither exhaust the issues of religious plurality nor can we express ourselves in a language that would be acceptable to everyone in our religious community. We could maybe make sense of the fact that it matters to us that that there are Jews and Christians and Muslims and Hindus and Buddhists and people of good will. It is obvious from our contributions that we can go beyond that which Traci West rightly calls "mechanisms of pseudo or symbolic inclusion". I hope we could in some way begin reflecting on what it might mean for us to have a sense of belonging together in spite of difference and diversity.


  1. W.C. Smith: Patterns of Faith Around the World, Oneworld, Oxford, 98, p.8
  2. Wesley Ariarajah: Reading the Bible in a pluralistic context, Ecumenical Review no 51 1/1999, p.6
  3. W.C. Smith, p.128

Go to Final report from the consultation
Return to Current Dialogue (34), February 2000

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